“Whether we are willing to admit the role or not,” Lou LaBrant wrote in 1943, “schools cannot escape responsibility for some share in determining whether the peace which comes will last” (p. 225).
As the U.S. approached the mid-twentieth century—after decades of vibrant debate about the purposes of schools, the promise of universal public education—LaBrant and many progressive educators remained optimistic, if not idealistic, about the power of formal education to create broad social change.
LaBrant mused about the teacher as scholar, demanding from herself and other educators very high expectations for content knowledge and pedagogy among teachers. And she also “advocate[d]…that we attempt to develop the kind of students who can themselves make a world of peace even though we do not give them the pattern” (p. 228).
Over seven decades ago, LaBrant called for embracing authentic critical thinking over basic transmission of knowledge:
What I started to say was that we must not depend upon presenting a body of facts, useful as facts are, but that we must in our classrooms constantly remember that it is thinking about facts which is the important thing, and that this is as true in science and English and mathematics as it is in history or economics or the arts….(p. 229)
But she added:
Thinking is not sufficient. We must also have people who are accustomed to work with others (not against them), and who know that regardless of color, religion, clothing, occupation, or skills, people can work together….Teachers who are themselves striving to find answers will lead children toward those answers. (p. 229)
My career as an educator has spanned from the early 1980s until today, but my classroom practice and educational scholarship have much deeper roots, ones richly grounded in the history of U.S. education that was made real to me by the life and career of LaBrant.
Having taught from 1906 until 1971, LaBrant wrote her memoir as she approached 100 years of age, brushing aside the back-to-basics movement under Ronald Reagan as something she had witnessed herself twice before throughout her career as an English teacher and university scholar.
LaBrant’s last decade was spent in the first decade of the current accountability era, but even as her eyesight faded, LaBrant saw through the facile political and bureaucratic rhetoric and policies that now define the field of education, a discipline that was never very robust but which is now nearly completely dismantled.
Education, A Discipline Denied
During a video-taped interview of LaBrant for Missing Chapters, LaBrant claimed that despite having been born in the 1880s she had never experienced any sexism.
Of course, she was an exceptional woman in many ways, and had achieved many accomplishments that during the early twentieth century were stereotypically male endeavors. But primarily, LaBrant was always a teacher, and being a teacher has been historically and continues to be a profession and discipline of women.
Currently, as John Warner writes, education remains plagued by sexism—as demonstrated in the low pay and dependency on adjuncts to teach composition, about which Warner highlights while attending a composition conference: “The attendees were also overwhelmingly female.”
There was no Golden Age of education as a profession or discipline, by the way; once again, something the study of the history of education reveals. But since the progressive era of the early to mid-1900s, when LaBrant published frequently, the steady bureaucratization of education has eroded any chance that education as a discipline could rise above teacher training and sit among the core disciplines in the academy.
Published years after Joe Kincheloe’s death by co-editor with Randy Hewitt, Regenerating the Philosophy of Education examines the disappearance of educational philosophy in education degrees and certification programs.
Standards, standards everywhere—it seems—but not a spot to think.
And now, Stephen Sawchuck in Education Week reports:
Once an ubiquitous course requirement that nearly all aspiring teachers took, the history of education seems to be going the way of land-line phones, floppy disks, and shorthand.
Crowded out by an ever-expanding teacher-preparation curriculum in the latter half of the 20th century, such courses are now almost exclusively electives reserved for graduate education students, according to scholars who have documented the decline.
To put it simply: Is the history of education, well, history? And more to the point, does that matter?
Increasingly, then, education practitioners and scholars are watching our profession and our field being bled of all the essential elements of either a profession or a field.
Education without philosophy is education without a mind.
Education without history is education without a past.
While there is much hand wringing (and little action) about the so-called corporatization of public education, there is little being done to save education as a discipline. And soon it will be too late.
Absent philosophy and history, education will in fact be mere technocracy and will be easily managed by temp workers (TFA, adjuncts) and technology (on-line education).
Absent philosophy and history, no one will be asking if that should happen, no one will be demanding the big demands that LaBrant and other progressives yearned for in the quickly dimming 1930s and 1940s.
Yes, I am here to fight to create the sort of universal public schools we have so far failed to produce, but I also am here to fight for education as the discipline it has never become.
“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” LaBrant wrote in 1961, but could write the same today, continuing:
By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. (p. 390)
Finally, LaBrant built to—and speaks to us now:
“They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (p. 291)
School choice lessons for Charleston – Post and Courier
Expanded version, early post: Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons from Charleston, SC
And at Truthout: Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons From Charleston, South Carolina
[included below with hyperlinks]
Mention a coastal city notable for its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters and human-made racism and generational poverty, and most people will think New Orleans, especially during the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
However, Charleston fits that same complicated profile and shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve equitably poor and black, resulting in both cities being targets of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven by political ideology.
While I have criticized mainstream media for covering education reform uncritically, I was impressed with the detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.
This coverage and related data are not new to those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (funding, teacher assignment, student tracking, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students.
Nonetheless, the Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to address that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, ones that are inextricable from racism and poverty.
One response to this series, a South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) Op-Ed titled School choice is a solution, not a problem, fails that opportunity because reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a debate about school choice is a distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.
As I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks do not represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps goals such as educational equity for black and poor children.
The Op-Ed response to Left Behind is primarily advocacy, without credible claims about either the results or promise of school choice (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).
Having written a book-length examination of school choice, I regret the choice debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.
- Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home.
- Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increases are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—not choice.
- School choice, notably charter schools, has increased racial and socioeconomic inequity: segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.
- SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools, and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.
But don’t poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy? Several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.
First, suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks.
Further, no one should have to wait for market forces might accomplish to have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first insure equitable public institutions.
As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
A full and robust commitment to public education is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market. The paradox is that in order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary.
As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but too often has exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.
After my Op-Ed on school choice ran in the Post and Courier, the P&C ran a letter that literally states, “And there is no ‘white privilege.'” Also great and disturbing evidence of the fight we face since the writer uses every tactic imaginable except addressing the evidence—attacking me, using one example to claim a generalization:
COMMENTARY: Are black children criminalized in schools?
Following the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count report showing South Carolina children are facing even greater challenges, research from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania) reveals that in SC and Greenville County black children are being disproportionately disciplined in our schools.
Just as the Kids Count data show racial inequity at the root of childhood challenges in our state, suspension and expulsion rates fall along racial lines between white and black students.
Across SC, “Blacks were 36% of students in school districts across the state, but comprised 60% of suspensions and 62% of expulsions,” including the SC Public Charter School having one of the highest ratios, 2.7 times disproportional. And in Greenville County, composed of 23.4% black students, the suspension rate for black students was double that enrollment at 47.4%.
However, the statistics themselves are not the whole story since research also shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. Reporting on the study in ColorLines, Kenrya Rankin Naasel explains:
When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.
David Ramey, assistant professor of sociology and criminology (Penn State), in a press release notes that these finding match a larger body of research:
The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors—for example, classroom disruptions, talking back—white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.
Further, beyond school, black children are viewed by police and others as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
From Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, Patton notes, the criminalization of black children in schools is amplified in the loss of young black life in streets.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has exposed that the U.S. judicial system, in fact, targets and punishes blacks differently for the same behaviors as whites. For example, Alexander notes that police units sweep high-poverty black neighborhoods for illegal recreation drugs but do not sweep college campuses, where drugs are just as likely but the population tends to be white and affluent.
In SC and Greenville County, then, we must begin to examine in our schools how our policies are criminalizing black students at a great cost to their lives as well as to the welfare of the state and area.
A first step is to acknowledge racial bias in perceptions about black children and then to examine not only the data on racial disparities in discipline outcomes but also the actual policies and practices in our schools.
Particularly in schools and when dealing with children of any race, punishments such as suspension and expulsion are likely harmful options that should not occur until interventions are implemented that address the needs of all children living in challenging environments.
Child behaviors identified as “bad” are often the consequences of life experiences not of any child’s making. In other words, school discipline policies may too often be punishing children for conditions not in their or even their parents’ control.
Disproportionate school discipline along racial lines reflects and perpetuates racial inequity in society and in our criminal justice system. Increasingly, research suggests that schools are creating a criminal class of black children instead of providing those children the support and guidance every child deserves to have a full and rich life.
SC and Greenville County schools face tremendous challenges because of pockets of poverty, but to neglect the lingering racism that compounds the weight of poverty guarantees failure for our schools and some children we are choosing to condemn instead of cherish.
Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.
How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?
But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).
And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.
For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.
Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.
Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.
Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.
— chris thinnes (@ChrisThinnes) August 20, 2015
Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.
Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.
For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.
Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.
Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.
Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.
In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:
I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.
It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.
Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.
“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.
Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.
From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.
The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.
First, the larger situation involves two powerful forces, both of which are driven by the missionary zeal of being on the right side, that wage war against each other while those who both sides claim to serve is trampled beneath them as collateral, and mostly ignored, damage.
More specifically, Marvel’s Civil War involves two legions of superheroes (and villains) who side with either Iron Man or Captain America (the two powerful forces characterized by missionary zeal and reckless disregard for citizens), but notable in this war is that the X-Men are neutral, as is Black Panther—serving as embodiments in the comic book universe of the Other (identified groups marginalized by status: race, sexual/gender identities, poverty).
Finally, what does this template represent? I recommend reading carefully Andre Perry’s Education reform is working in New Orleans – just like white privilege—notably:
White critics of education reform should especially include themselves in the power structure. Yes, the neo-liberal, market-driven, corporate anti-reform critique isn’t the only frame that robs black people of their voice.
I wish white folk would hear me when I say the pro-/anti-reform frame doesn’t work for black folk. If anything, our position in the social world makes us reformers. Black folk never had the luxury of defending status quo. New Orleans needed to make radical changes in education as part of larger hurricane preparedness plan. Getting a college degree is the kind of protection black people need. Cynicism isn’t protection.
Perry confronts that the rise of education reformers dedicated to bureaucratic and technocratic reform as well as the concurrent reaction to that reform agenda among those championing an idealized faith in public education have in common their willingness to both trample and ignore the black and high-poverty communities, parents, and students both groups often claim to represent.
This education reform war, like Marvel’s Civil War, fails, as Perry has noted before, the problems of race and racism: “But let’s also stipulate that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.”
Perry concludes about the “overwhelmingly white” education reform wars: “We need less ‘reform’ and more social justice.”
Posting on Twitter in the wake of the anniversary of Ferguson, John Warner strikes a similar chord in terms of broader failures of social justice advocacy:
While I entered public education dedicated to teaching as a form of activism for social justice, I can speak hear as someone who has certainly failed my own goals (confronting poverty and racism) by allowing much of my work both to feed and appear to feed the exact failure Perry and others have identified.
As I have been addressing for some time, the tensions of race and racism have been a central struggle of doing public work—although in my daily teaching, during my 18 years as a high school teacher and then more than a decade as a teacher educator, has remained more securely tethered to causes of social justice related to poverty and racism.
Lashing out against Teach For America and charter schools (among all school choice) by me and others has certainly served to ignore and even erase voices and issues connected to race.
But I also recognize the ineffectiveness of nuanced positions since my approach to Common Core has not fit within either the so-called reformer stance (pro Common Core) or the jumbled stance among idealistic public school advocates (some are for and some are against Common Core).
It is well past time, then, to emphasize that the recent thirty-years of education reform characterized by accountability built on standards and testing as well as the rise of TFA and charter schools would never have occurred if public education had been serving black and poor children as well as all formal schooling has served white and affluent children.
Education policy, then, is as complicated as social policy in the U.S.—where those in power and the public appear either reluctant or resistant to confronting the entrenched weight of race and class on social and educational equity.
And while political and public opinion are against us, those concerned with social justice linked to race and class equity must commit first to listening to and working with (not for) the communities, parents, and students who have been mis-served for decades by social and educational institutions and policies, specifically black and impoverished communities, parents, and students.
Missionary zeal and paternalism are burdens of both the education reformers and the public school advocates taking up arms against those reforms.
Broad stroke support for and rejections of any of these reforms are prone to be tone deaf and detrimental to claimed commitments for equity and social justice.
Evoking the very real and devastating realities mirrored in bad science fiction and Marvel’s Civil War, Perry argues: “New Orleanians don’t need an all-or-nothing, slash-and-burn system. We have inevitable hurricanes for that.”
Black folk are always the collateral damage of privileged people’s broad-stroke critiques. And the white criticisms of reform always negate black involvement and dare I say positive contribution toward change. We should validate the suffering, death and destruction that occurred during and in the aftermath of Katrina. But “awfulizing” isn’t the way to get there.
We don’t need the white, privileged, anti-reform framework developed by three or four white critics to deny the voices we need to uplift.
For me, the image I have evoked of political education reformers as the roadbuilders remains a valid metaphor, but it is incomplete and has too often served as just more noise drowning out those who must be heard.
So who is willing to stop the uproar against misguided and often tone-deaf education reform from the political elite long enough to listen to the black and poor communities who have witnessed decades of negligence by public institutions?
[full unedited text below]
Two facts about children and poverty are especially disturbing: children make up about 1/3 of people in the U.S. in poverty, but raising children expands those in poverty to 43%.
Our state has long suffered in the bottom quartile of impoverished states in the U.S., but SC’s 2015 Kids Count profile reveals a grim picture with the state ranking 42nd in the nation in terms of child well-being:
- SC children’s economic status has mostly worsened from 2008 to 2013 with 290,000 children in poverty, 376,000 children with parents lacking secure employment, and 349, 000 children in households with burdensome housing costs.
- SC children’s educational opportunities remain inequitable. The percentage of children attending preschool has worsened, and so-called proficiency levels in math and reading have mixed results while high school graduation remains, although improved overall, elusive to those young people most in need of education.
- Healthcare for SC’s children has improved, but 73,000 children remain without healthcare in the state.
- SC’s children also face harsh community challenges. 420,000 children live in single-parent homes, an increase from 2008 to 2013, and more children, 161,000, live in high-poverty communities now than a few years ago.
The summer of 2015 has brought an intense spotlight on SC with the racist shooting of nine black citizens gathered in their church. Along with that tragedy, many in the state have continued to claim that we as a people embrace heritage and not hate.
However, political leaders and the public rarely identify the exact and real conditions behind claims of “heritage” and “tradition.” In SC and all across the South, our heritage includes crippling economic inequity and entrenched racism—both of which condemn our children to their ZIP codes, not the content of their character, being their destiny.
In the U.S., despite lingering and false stereotypes of “welfare queens,” 80% of people in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and the working poor.
As well, despite educational attainment, racial inequity remains powerful. Even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks. And blacks with some college have the same probability of employment as white high school dropouts.
Congressman James E. Clyburn has called for SC both to appreciate the symbolism of removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds and to commit to substantive policy addressing the great weight of poverty and racism that our state still carries, a weight that is particularly harmful to our children.
Clyburn identifies healthcare and voting rights as policy SC must address, but there are many commitments to the lives of our children we could make to give substance to refrains of “heritage”:
- Insure, as Clyburn notes, that all children in SC have healthcare from conception until their early 20s.
- Seek public policy that supports all families with children, focusing on ensuring that having children doesn’t push any family into poverty.
- Abandon the fruitless education accountability process and replace our school reform efforts with a focus on equity of opportunity: equitable K-12 and higher education funding across the state, equitable teacher assignments for all students, access to high-quality courses for all students, and quality alternatives for anyone to complete high school and college degrees despite age or background with substantial financial support.
- Create stable and well-paying work for the people of SC that reinforces everyone’s access to healthcare and retirement/savings.
- Confront directly and comprehensively the reality in SC that the state has enough money, but that our problem is the inequitable distribution of that capital. The infamous Corridor of Shame was not created by our school system, but the education inequity that it reveals is a reflection of the larger socioeconomic injustice across our state.
American novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin confronted Noble Prize winning author William Faulkner in the early years of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. because Faulkner called for patience among blacks in the South.
Baldwin responded with words that should resonate today in SC: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
“The Scientist,” Coldplay
The absolute greatest gift of being a teacher by profession is accumulating throughout your career the young people gifted you by your classroom.
A few days ago, I was having lunch with a former student and current teacher, Ali Williams, who teaches English at a majority-minority, high-poverty high school in the school district that serves the county where I teach.
Among the ramblings of our nerdfest, we talked about language, about the challenges of trying to be a good teacher, and about the fields of psychology and sociology, a tension that has more and more fascinated me over a thirty-plus years career as a teacher.
For anyone who doesn’t know Ali personally or who has never spent time at her school or with her students (I have had several teacher candidates placed at the school and thus have observed there often), the reality today is that the students are likely and uncritically viewed as at-risk, the school is believed to be failing, and Ali could very easily be labeled a bad teacher.
Those pronouncements occur all across the state of South Carolina and the U.S.—an accusatory finger pointing that blinds political leaders and the public from the corrosive social forces that are reflected by students, teachers, and schools (but not created by those students, teachers, or schools).
Because the U.S. remains trapped within the lies of rugged individualism and believing the country is a meritocracy, the influence of psychology (mostly quantified claims about individual qualities and behaviors) is more readily and almost entirely uncritically and inaccurately embraced while sociology (often broad and descriptive explorations of social forces) is either ignored or carelessly discounted—often as “excuses.”
If we did deeper, another division is embedded in the disciplinary tension above—the power of numbers.
Numbers give the compelling appearance of objectivity and certainty while rich description offers complexity and uncertainty.
And the U.S. has a disturbing propensity for being a blowhard nation; we seem to like our columnists, radio personalities, and even presidential candidates to hold forth with the simplistic bloviating found among privileged white men who have never reconsidered anything, especially their own privilege.
The 10,000-hour rule, humans use only 10% of their brains, poor children have smaller vocabularies that wealthy children, high rates of black-on-black crime—each of these remains incredibly common claims throughout mainstream media, politics, and private conversations, but each is also bad numbers—at best cited in misleading ways and at worst simply wrong.
Numbers are compelling, especially when they can be used to promote “objectively” our worst prejudices.
If we focus on the black-on-black crime claim (which I believe is representative of this problem), that data are misleading because essentially most crime is within race (white-on-white crime is about 84% and black-on-black, 91%).
Crime is also strongly connected with poverty, and then poverty disproportionately impacts blacks.
In other words, a rich and detailed description of crime, one that is more accurate and not accusatory, pulls back from focusing the gaze on individuals and raises questions about why so much crime is among family members and acquaintances, why so much crime is within lives overburdened by poverty, and why the criminal justice system also disproportionately targets some people (blacks, the poor) while somehow turning away from other people (whites, the affluent).
The black-on-black crime lie is not much different than the at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools lies.
The accountability movement in education has embraced and perpetuated high-stakes testing in order to increase the quantification of blame, to make sure the accusatory finger pointing remains on individuals and not the social forces creating those things being measured.
As a result, satire is hard to separate from reality:
In an effort to hold classroom instructors more accountable, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled new statewide education standards Friday that require public school teachers to forever change the lives of at least 30 percent of their students. “Under our updated educator evaluation policy, teachers must make an unforgettable, lifelong impact on at least three of every 10 students and instill a love of learning in them that lasts the rest of their lives,” said chairman James Meeks, adding that based on the annual assessments, if 30 percent of students don’t recall a particular teacher’s name when asked to identify the most influential and inspiring person in their lives, that instructor would be promptly dismissed. “We are imposing these standards to make certain that a significant proportion of students in any given classroom can someday look back and say, ‘That teacher changed the course of my life, making me who I am today, and there’s no way I could ever repay them.’ Anything less is failure.” Meeks also confirmed the implementation of another rule aimed at ensuring that no more than 40 percent of a teacher’s students end up in prison.
How is this substantially different than No Child Left Behind requiring 100% proficiency by 2014? How is this substantially different than legislation demanding teachers and schools close the achievement gap (a coded lie again no different from the black-on-black crime claim)?
Labeling students at-risk, teachers bad, and schools failing is itself the real failure because it keeps our eyes focused on the consequences—not the causes—of the problems we claim to be addressing.
My former student Ali who is now a wonderful and dedicated young teacher can never be accurately reduced to a number, just as her students can never be rightfully represented by a number.
But our words matter also.
Overwhelmingly, the labels we assign to students, teachers, and schools reflect the conditions of lives and communities not created by those being labeled.
We must end the use of deficit language that points the accusatory finger at people who are the victims of situations beyond their control because that absolves the few who do have the power both to create and tolerate the great inequities that now characterize the U.S.
Distorting numbers and simplistic labels, in fact, make it less likely that we can and will confront when individuals are to blame and when we do fail students, education, and our communities (and, yes, those failures do exist, although not in the ways we hear daily among those prone to blame).
At-risk students? How about looking at some data and asking some fundamental questions?
Those students we tend to label “at-risk”—black, brown, poor, ELL, and special needs—are disproportionately likely to be taught by un-/under-qualified and early career teachers. Why?
If we answer that—along with why they live in homes and communities overburdened by poverty—and then do something about those conditions, we would find our urge to label those students suddenly different.
If we somehow swapped children in so-called failing schools with so-called exemplary schools (both in their homes and their schools), the labels would stick with the conditions, not the children.
This would hold true if we swapped faculty between so-called failing and so-called exemplary schools.
If we genuinely believe in universal public education as essential to democracy and equity, then we must resist the corrosive power of quantifying and labeling that has become entrenched in how we talk about students, teachers, and schools.
I am a teacher, and many of my former students, like Ali, are teachers.
“Nobody said it was easy,” could be about this profession we share. “No one ever said it would be this hard.”
As formal schooling begins again this fall, however, many students, teachers, and schools are facing conditions that now make education even more difficult because of accusatory finger pointing, numbers and labels that mask the lingering stereotypes and biases that create so called at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools.
What’s in a publication’s name? Apparently when the publication’s title includes “Education,” the lesson is “reader beware.”
Essentially and uncritically parroting that piece, Education Week proclaims: New Orleans Test Scores Have ‘Shot Up’ 10 Years After Katrina, Report Says.
We have been here before since mainstream media—even the so-called “liberal media”—are prone to whitewashing the story of disaster capitalism in New Orleans education reform. And I have discussed recently the need to have a nuanced and complicated examination of both public and charter schools, inspired by Andre Perry’s impassioned and blunt confrontation of why black parents have embraced charter schools in New Orleans.
So it is in that spirit that I note, Salon (no “Education” in the title, by the way) has run a much better and more complex look at post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans: “Reform” makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina.
Much of Berkshire’s investigation parallels the concerns anticipated by the National Education Policy Center’s press release about claims and research coming out of the 10th anniversary of Katrina, which concludes:
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers. Even if the reforms implemented under such a hyper-politicized arrangement show some clear gains in student achievement, as seems to be the case, it is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores. The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. In light of these concerns, there is a need for more research that systematically examines whether the reforms have truly altered the structure of opportunities for students who are low-income, of color, English Language Learners, or have disabilities. Given the additional resources and the unique New Orleans experience, there are also questions about how sustainable and replicable the New Orleans model is, even though many cities are adopting similar reforms.
It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores. In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a “recovery” or “portfolio” model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.
So we are left with two truisms about education publications and education reform: (1) If “Education” is in the publication title, you better do your homework, and (2) if education reform is touted to achieve outcomes that seem too good to be true, then they likely aren’t true.
Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.
For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.
Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.
As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).
In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.
Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.
Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.
What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.
I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.
I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.
However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.
Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.
As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.
Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?
If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?
As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.
I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.
Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.
Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.
Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?
I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.
When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.
Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.
I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.
And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.
“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:
The days of bondage—
Do not stand still.
Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.